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Thursday, March 28, 2019

Dungeon Module Design

Because I was working on the dungeon module for that map I posted Monday, I revisited a lot of other posts I’ve written on the subject of module design and gathered them together, making a few changes to make what I consider a good set of dungeon design guidelines.

Part I: General Format

Modules are divided into two general parts: the Deep Picture (explanatory stuff) and the Terse Details (practical stuff.)

Deep Picture: Overview of what is going on in the dungeon, who the major players are and where, how zones in the dungeon are arranged, and what might be significant. Use this part to integrate a module into the campaign setting, plant plot hooks leading to the dungeon, or define what may happen to the world after contact is made with the dungeon.

Terse Details: Room keys with barest minimum of information needed to play. Independent of the Deep Picture, and as much as possible each room description should be independent of other room descriptions, or should be on the same page as related rooms, so that there is no page-flipping during play.

The Deep Picture preps you for how to run the adventure, while the Terse Details are what you use during actual play.

A small dungeon would basically be a one to three-page Deep Picture introduction followed by Terse Details in the one-page dungeon format. A slightly larger dungeon would have map and room key on facing pages. If the dungeon is too large to fit the entire room key on one page, for example if it is a sprawling complex with multiple areas or if it has multiple dungeon levels, split the dungeon into sections. Each section would be a map and a key on facing pages, perhaps with a graphic inset showing how each section relates to other sections.

Actual monster stats are perhaps best kept on a separate page, either at the end of the Deep Picture section or the end of the module, which can be printed out and set to one side, so that it is always available regardless of which page you turn to.

Sample Terse Details
120. Ruined/vandalized Kitchen with hearth/chimney. Ogre skeleton. Hidden: snake, 8ft long, sack w/84gp. Shortsword (ogre’s “dagger”) Snake is reincarnation of ogre, becomes follower of high-Charisma Chaotic adventurer.
Detail Elements
  • Numeric or other label, in bold, to locate the room on the map
  • Name of room, in bold, which can be used to improvise contents
  • Obvious things to see in the room, in ordinary text
  • Hidden things or triggerable events, in italics
  • Bold text = summary of room,
  • ordinary text = what is different than expected about the room,
  • italic text = what’s discovered if a certain condition is met (room is searched, monster ambushes party, lever is pulled.)
Common practice for room labels is either letters or numbers in sequence, but a better practice is to use a coordinate grid: number 1-2 or 1-4 across the top of the map and 1-2 to 1-6 down one side to create two-digit numbers describing the room position. I’ve settled on the vertical number being the tens digit, so that rooms 11 to 19 would be the top row of rooms, rooms 21 to 29 the second row down, and so on. Dungeon sections would each have a one to four letter abbreviation so you could refer to a room exit leading to A13, which would be in section A, middle left of map.

If monster stats are moved to a separate sheet, room keys will only contain name of monster (generic or proper) and any description modifier, plus any details needed for play, such as unusual weapon or behavior. (“Troll: loyal to Ogre-King. Goblin named Bruce: loyal only out of fear.”)

Part II: General Level Design Practices
  • Use lots of loops and branches
  • Include minor level changes (balcony areas overlooking hallways, interconnected pits)
  • There should always be at least one obvious thing to do in any room
  • Empty rooms aren’t empty if there is something to interact with (multiple exits, locked doors)
  • Include hints of reward, with obvious obstacle(s) to reward
  • The best puzzles or riddles are built around remembering patterns seen in the dungeons, filling in missing elements by analogy, or recognizing the “odd one out” in a group of three or more elements
Part III: Level Design Procedures

Divide maps into areas with general purposes or themes like:
  • Entrance
  • Military
  • Prison
  • Shrine
  • Food
There’s no set list for this. Just pick themes that look interesting, or use just about any random resource.

Apply a modifier, either to an entire area or on a room-by-room basis. This can be picked based on what you have in mind for the dungeon or randomly selected.
  1. Busy
  2. Unused
  3. Abandoned
  4. Ruined
  5. Reused
  6. Other
This is a simplified version of a previous list of modifiers. Busy areas will be occupied, Unused areas will be dusty but intact, Abandoned and Ruined will be in different states of dilapidation, Reused areas will have modifications that don’t match the original but still obvious use. “Other” covers a lot of other modifiers, like “Scorched” or “Giant”.

Pick or randomly select a category for each room:
  1. Containment
  2. Dump/Waste
  3. Task/Job
  4. Fortification
  5. Living/Lair
  6. Special
On a roll of 6, there’s a 2d6 follow-up roll to create hybrid categories: interpret each die on the table above, but do not roll again for a 6 result; instead, “Special” represents incomprehensible elements or tricks.

Combine this with the modifier and theme to create room descriptions, like “Abandoned Prison Guard Station” or “Crypt Reused as Lair”.

Some of this will be clearer when I finish my sample dungeon module and can refer to it as an example.

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  1. A+. The way I do it is very similar except I include a table of dungeon dressing for each level.

    1. How do you use this table? Is it intended to roll for contents of each room as PCs explore? Or is it more like "miscellaneous items you find if you search a room on this level"?

    2. I took a very long table from Labyrinth lord or Swords & Wizardry and cut it down into multiple tables so that I could have different ones for different 'areas'.

      The table has junk, furniture, and trappings. Nothing really worthwhile but things that give the room flavor. the idea is i don't have to describe most room's contents in my key beyond the monster/treasure/traps. If they search the room, ask for details of the room, or I want to fill the silence for some reason I roll on the table for that section and tell them a few items that might be in the room. At times some of the furniture items have been used to create barricades but usually it's just landmarks "we'll go back to that room with the broken mirror".

  2. One of the better dungeon advice/guidelines I've seen.

    1. Thanks!

      An actual dungeon where I try to abide by those rules is uploaded and will be posted today.

  3. Very useful advice, coherently summarized! I'm afraid I still keep following bad habits ingrained from B2 Keep on the Borderlands in 1980, but I hope I'll hew closer to your advice the next time I write an adventure.